Eight miles east of San Juan Capistrano, one might be forgiven for thinking that civilization ended at the curb of Ortega Highway. Caspers Wilderness Park extends to the north, with Cleveland National Forest beyond. Yet, as you drive past a non-descript pair of stone columns and low-slung iron gate on your right, you would be unaware that you were passing the entrance to one of Orange County’s most unknown and unique communities — Rancho Carrillo.
At the end of a winding six mile driveway hidden along Ortega Highway lies the unique, rural community of Rancho Carrillo. Surrounded by nearly 40,000 acres of wilderness, including the Cleveland National Forest, Rancho Carrillo is home to 75 equestrian and ranch properties, nestled among the San Mateo Canyon wilderness. While technically situated in Riverside County, Rancho Carrillo orients itself west — children attend school in the Capistrano Unified School District and residents primarily work and shop in South Orange County.
There is an aura of rugged self-reliance in Rancho Carrillo that has seemed long-extinct from the rest of Orange County. Residents work the land and contribute time and resources to the local homeowners’ association, water company and volunteer fire department.
According to the community’s web site:
Our “valley on the top of a hill”, known historically as Verdugo Potrero, was once part of a Spanish land grant. In the 1800’s it was acquired by the Carrillo family and the Wheeler family. In 1962 it was subdivided into the form that it exists today.
By “Carrillo family,” they are referencing the family of famous actor and conservationist, who was affectionately and respectfully known as “Mr. California” — Leo Carrillo.
Rancho Carrillo is much more than an idyllic community hidden from the hustle and bustle of the flatlanders below. Rancho Carrillo is in many ways a time capsule. According to a 1995 article in the Los Angeles Times — an article that itself is 18 years old! — Rancho Carrillo is a “throwback to earlier times in California”:
Hawks float overhead. Deer walk amid oak and manzanita. Residents can ride their horses from their front door to Temecula or Lake Elsinore. There is no crime or traffic. A lone stop sign doesn’t tell motorists to stop but says “Whoa.”
Residents are welcoming of invited guests, but they value their privacy. Unannounced visitors will be met by a local “welcoming party” before they get to the top of the driveway. Historically, Rancho Carrillo only opens itself up to outsiders one time per year, for the annual “Hooligan” get-t0gether — a fundraiser for the volunteer fire department. Supporting the fire department is an important and worthwhile cause, as fire is a very real threat to this remote community and its residents.
According to that 1995 LA Times article:
Fire, not auto thieves or burglars, poses the biggest danger to Rancho Carrillo and its estimated 175 residents. In October, 1993, fire off Ortega Highway scorched 22,000 acres of brush. Scars can be found in and around Rancho Carrillo. Thirteen homes here were destroyed in that firestorm as it moved westward.
The video below captures the devastation of the 1993 Ortega fire:
Fire remains an ever-present danger to Rancho Carrillo, and residents are well prepared in how to respond to a fire threatening their remote community. Nevertheless, for those who live in Rancho Carrillo, the charm of living in a true community — a community that lives and works together in a way that could never be duplicated by a tract or subdivision — outweighs any danger or inconvenience they may face. In a very real way, Rancho Carrillo embodies the essence of what so many find lacking in Orange County’s suburban sprawl.
Depending on how you do the math, Rancho Carrillo is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and we wanted to honor this unique community. Below is a personal video prepared by William Beamish, the son of one of the original developers, describing his family’s role in the origins of Rancho Carrillo from the early 1960s: